Wednesday, April 26, 2006

All about the Benjamins (or Mr. Benjamin at the All-England Club)

Wimbledon announced this week that while the male champion would pocket $1.170 million, the women's champ would win $1.117 million. The new math has drawn the ire of the dormant Venus Williams, who thinks the money pot split unequal in a few ways.
"This is not just about women's tennis but about women all over the world," she said. "At Wimbledon we would like to have equal prize money to prove that we are equal on all fronts."
The issue of pay at Grand Slams has evolved over the years. Of course, it started with trailblazer Billie Jean King and the creation of the Virginia Slims Tour. Now, players like Williams can make as much as King did in her whole career -- sitting on her couch for an entire season. Yes, women's tennis sells these days, even without all the interesting rivalries that existed just a few years ago. Most would even argue that most tennis fans want to see the women duke it out, more than they'd like to see Federer triple-bagel some poor guy named Hewitt.
But equal money? And 'equal on all fronts?' I don't know. Actually, I do know. I know that if I worked with someone who spent fewer hours at work than me, I'd be really upset to find out that they were making the same amount of money I was.
If, as Williams says, this is about equality, then the women should be willing to play best-of-five matches, just like the fellas. After all, it was Venus and her sister who upped the level of fitness, and players like Mauresmo and Kuznetsova who keep that level high. Players like Chris Evert may not have been able to do it, but today's female tennis player has the ability to play five sets.
Think about Roger Federer for a second. Last year, in order to take the Wimbledon crown, he had to play 22 sets. Venus won it by playing 15 sets. (Some perspective: The men's runner-up, Andy Roddick, played 26 sets.) Perhaps, in his heart of hearts, Federer thinks he deserves more money, and a bigger trophy, than Venus. He'd never say it, though, because that would be considered sexist.
If the women's tour doesn't find it fair that they'd have to put in best-of-five performances, just like the men, I consider that sexist. As a woman, I don't want anyone handing me anything I didn't earn. These women work hard, and have helped transform the game. I can't imagine they'd be happy with handouts. But they seem to be. At the Australian, the French, and the U.S. Open.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Taking our game South

"Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you're not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. 'Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That's just the way it is. "
Clint Eastwood, The Outlaw Josey Wales, 1976

For those of us whose tennis days live and die on the whims of the weather, it's league time. If you're a real die-hard, you've been working on your game, rain or shine, on public courts, because you refuse to pay to play tennis for one measly hour. If you're truly obsessed, you'll travel to faraway lands to play in tournaments, taking your chances against all manner of competition.
Color me obsessed. My husband and I decided to mix in a tennis tournament with our vacation recently, and traveled to foreign Spartanburg, South Carolina. We did our research on the USTA Web site and gathered that things looked good for us. We'd been fine-tuning our games, and couldn't wait to unload it on a bunch of unsuspecting Southerners. I was also buoyed by (shameless plug) my recent publication in Tennis magazine ( and privately fantasized about being recognized.
We drove into Spartanburg the same day we were due to play our singles matches, and made it in plenty of time to hit. But for the first time since I started playing, I couldn't keep a ball in court, and neither could Jerry. I looked at my watch. One hour to game time. This was not part of the plan.
Five-thirty found us still trying to hit straight, and our opponents drawing near. The woman I was set to play shook my hand as we walked over to our court. "Didn't you have a story in Tennis magazine?" she asked. When I nodded, she gestured to her husband. "This is the girl!" she said.
That felt nice. Real nice. But any chance I had of letting it get to my head faded when I found myself down 0-3 in the first set. I glanced over to Jerry, who was on the court next to me, and looked equally exasperated. I tried using drop shots to make my opponent run, which seemed to make her miserable, but I missed one. When I did, I felt myself lose confidence in the strategy, although it had gotten me a game, and I lost my way. The remainder of the match consisted of flailing around in my arsenal, but finding nothing to truly hurt my opponent, least of all consistency.
At the end of the drubbing, she approached me at the net, shaking her head and smiling regretfully. "The wind was the third player," she said. "And your serve let you down."
I smiled back. "Thanks," my mouth said. Bitch, my mind thought.
Fortunately, there were free libations available. My husband and I moped while we drank and mingled. As much as I had looked forward to this tournament, league play, this whole season, I now felt like I should be have been playing another sport. I briefly considered breaking the color barrier in curling, but concluded that that was the champagne.
The next day, we were pissed, and resolved that we had to win our mixed doubles match, and the trophy. After all, it was our wedding anniversary, right? Right. We lost 6-4, 6-4.
A point in the final game of that match felt to me like a microcosm of our South Carolina experience. Jerry hit a shot that appeared to (definitely) hit the baseline. The man on the other team called the ball out. We looked at each other doubtfully, then to the man. "I thought it was gonna be good, too. The wind must've carried it out."
"Yeah," I said loudly, as we took position for the next point. I made sure my next words were layered in sarcasm. "Must've been the wind."
I swung wildly at the next ball, and hit it right into the net. Soon, we were put out of our misery.
Later that day, when we arrived in Asheville, N.C., our next destination, that point, and its aftermath kept replaying in my head.
I held no reservations about the status of Jerry's ball. I knew it was good, and that guy had robbed us. My reaction was to get mad. I realized that I should have gotten mean, stingy.
Anger can flare up anytime, and unless your name is McEnroe, it does a player no good on court. But meanness can take you a long way. Anger is an emotion; meanness is an attitude. If you can step out on the court with the intention to be mean, to give nothing to your opponent, to take everything away from them when a weakness is exposed, you're mean. Plumb, mad-dog mean.
Good luck, league warrior.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Davis who?

As everyone must know, the United States defeated Chile to advance to the Davis Cup semifinals to face Russia. As usual, the crowds clamoring at the pubs, bypassing the Masters golf tournament, to see if Roddick and Co. can bring the cup back home.
Yeah, right. The reality is that the Davis Cup comes and goes every year, and every year, people give less and less of a crap about it. Stop and consider this: Every four years, the Olympics grab huge ratings and interest with events like curling. If you don't know this, curling involves a broom, a giant puck, and people yelling at said puck. Anyway, people watch this on television because it's the Olympics, and it involves teams playing (?) for their country.
The Davis Cup involves people playing for their country, and it's tennis, which means that they're actually playing a sport. So why doesn't anyone care? Glad you asked.
First, Davis Cup is played every year, and sporadically at that. The U.S. clinched the semis on April 9. They won't play again until September 22. Besides this, they play only three days at a time. Does anyone else get the feeling that this event is set up to squeeze it in the tennis calendar? If there's supposed to be so much pride involved in representing your country, why wedge it in whenever other, individual, events allow?
The solution is simple: Make Davis Cup at least biannual. Take a two-week bloc, set it up in a tennis-mad country (which should bring to an end Andy Roddick's uncanny knack of breaking the serve record at home matches) and build some interest.
Give it the publicity of a fifth major, and the players will want to do it.
The other thing Davis Cup needs is a playoff system. I know, I know: Play-affs!? Play-affs!? (No Jim Mora fans? Pity.) Yes, playoffs. Could Michelle Kwan get into the Olympics without competing for a spot? OK, bad example. Why does Andy Roddick get an automatic spot on the team? Because Coach McEnroe gets to decide. That's boring. Each country should have a round-robin tournament to decide who gets to play. The players with the best records get in. Once again, fans are involved because they'll get to come out and root for their favorites. It'll generate interest in Davis Cup, and for tennis overall. If you have playoffs one year, and the tournament the next, it'll keep fan interest going, too.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Taking stock at the NASDAQ-100

1. Without further ado, it's time to anoint the first Tennis With Attitude Player of the Week Award. This player shows a desire to win above all things, including tact and regard to the rules, as well as the ability to flash the 'diva' card whenever necessary. Introducing Maria Sharapova. In her semifinal against Frenchwoman Tatiana Golovin, Sharapova watched a 5-1 lead in the second set dwindle, then disappear. When Golovin stepped to the line to serve at 4-5, Sharapova obviously decided to ice the girl, and asked the ump for a bathroom break. The umpire at first that she'd have to wait until after her opponent's serve (Hold it? Hold it!? Do you know who I am?) but relented. Then, in the third set, Golovin rolled her ankle badly, and, as a trainer worked to help her, Sharapova looked not the least bit interested, shadow-stroking on the other side of the net, as though she were working on her modeling moves. Wow. That's tennis with attitude, playas.

2. In the quarterfinals, Sharapova faced a much-improved Anastasia Myskina. Not talking about the game. It wasn't long ago when Myskina was sporting the boyish hair cut and not much else. In Miami, she took the court with a new, longer hairdo and in full makeup, including lip gloss. The ESPN commentators pointed out that she's been spending a lot of time with Anna Kournikova. Huh. You don't say. You know, someone who could use Kournikova's 'friendship' is new NASDAQ-100 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova.

3. "Maybe you're saying he's going through a bad patch, but everybody does. I'm sure he will win titles again." That's David Ferrer, who edged Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals in Miami. You know who the winner of this match got to play? The winner between James Blake and Roger Federer. Ferrer is a tough player, and played solid tennis to beat Roddick, but maybe, just maybe, the idea of meeting the Fed Express was playing with Andy's backhand more than Ferrer was?

4. Clijsters. Henin-Hardenne. Nadal. Hewitt. Maybe a few of the French Open finalists this year, but they all bailed before the third round at the NASDAQ. Kim Clijsters proved that Jill Craybas didn't just get lucky at Wimbledon with her win over Serena Williams, by losing a tough one, 7-5 in the third. The ancient Carlos Moya scored over his protege Rafael Nadal in a really lopsided contest, 2-6, 6-1, 6-1 . Lleyton Hewitt lost to a resurgent (?) Tim Henman. Justine Henin-Hardenne? Broke a fingernail.

5. On the sidelines for the NASDAQ: Venus Williams, who finally slipped out of the top ten by virtue of Kuznetsova's run. She's pleading a sore elbow. We're pleading for her to make up her mind already. Andre Agassi also pulled out of this event with a sore back. Will a lengthy break increase his chances at Wimbledon? Yes. If this were a Hollywood movie.

6. Ever heard of Jamea Jackson? OK, yeah, the black lefty. Also, the first player to use Hawkeye, tennis' new instant replay system. She lost it. A lot of pros lost their challenges this week. Turns out the linesmen are mostly right. Strange that a stationary person whose only job is to stare at a line (that's it!) could be more accurate than a person swinging a racquet and running like a madman most of the time, sometimes on the other side of the court from the ball in question.
Besides that, the new system is pretty seamless. The review takes about 15-20 seconds. Thus, two challenges a set seems a bit skimpy. If it doesn't take that long, why not give players about four or five a set? Because players will take advantage! you shout. Not if it takes them out of their own game. Not if they're always wrong.
The point of this challenge system is to prevent players from getting screwed by bad calls. If that's really the goal, a two-challenge limit per set isn't going to do it. Do officials really think a ball can get close to a line only two times a set? And if you're wrong twice, you're SOL for the rest of the set? It may make a player choose his spots a bit more carefully. He may also lose those well-considered challenges, and end up in the same position he was in when there was no challenge system: screwed. Why can't match umpires ask for a review, yet they can still overrule a linesman?
Bottom line: Either let the linesmen do their jobs or increase the number of challenges a set. This change to the game is a good one, but just a baby step.